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Friday, March 24, 2023

Elon Musk Is Broken, and We Have Broken Him

Of all the striking things about the interview with Elon Musk The New York Times published Thursday night—the tears, the lack of regrets over certain tweets, the fact that rapper Azealia Banks may somehow be part of Tesla’s financial future—was Musk’s claim that he’d be ready to abandon his role as Tesla CEO and chairman.

“If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job,” he told the paper. “Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”

On the surface, the implication—nobody else can do this—is nonsense. Lots of people could run Tesla. Starting with the hundreds of capable executives at the world’s automakers, most of which are larger, more efficient, and more profitable than Tesla. Go a bit deeper though, and you find the truth of the sentiment. Sure, someone might be a better CEO. But there’s no replacing Elon Musk. Because the man is not just a CEO. To many, the man is a legend.

Start with the tale of Tesla. When the company launched in 2003, car salesmen were stocking up on the 12-mpg Hummer H2. The most popular battery-powered vehicles were golf carts. The American auto industry is famously brutal to newcomers, and the idea of one succeeding with electric vehicles racked up the lolz. For years, skeptics waited to bury Tesla alongside Tucker, DeLorean, Fisker. Musk defied them. He made electric cars capable (and sort of self-driving). He made them easy to charge (on an infrastructure he built). But most importantly, he made them desirable. Owning a Tesla became a status symbol; about 400,000 people are on a waiting list to own the Model 3. The entire venture proved you didn’t have to be GM or Ford or Chrysler to make cars in America. And you didn’t have to be BMW or Mercedes or Lexus to make luxury cars appealing to Americans.

Simultaneously, Musk was running SpaceX. Under his leadership, the commercial space company defied entrenched aviation giants like Boeing by breaking into the rocket science business. Musk promised to colonize Mars. As his side hustles, he wished a hyperloop industry into creation, dabbled in artificial intelligence, and won a contract to dig tunnels under Chicago.

And all along the way, much of the world cheered him on. Musk graced magazine covers. He inspired songs. He went on talk shows, appeared on The Simpsons and South Park, made Page Six headlines. Sure, he had a sizable ego (who wouldn’t?) and habit of belittling those who doubted or opposed him (haters!), but the public largely forgave him these minor transgressions given his major skills in proposing big, bold ideas, and delivering on them.

But over the past year, this goodwill has started to fade. Much of that erosion can be traced to Musk’s greatest business struggle: the mass production of the $35,000 Model 3 sedan. The car Tesla had long promised, the vehicle that would bring clean driving to the masses and profits to shareholders, that would make Tesla a real automaker. As ever, Musk set ambitious goals and deadlines. As ever, he missed them. A few times over. Investors were used to this, but the company’s future hinged on the Model 3, a reality that evidently intensified the pressure, especially as the production process hit one snag after another. “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career,” Musk told the Times. “It was excruciating.” He didn’t contain the pain. In the first half of 2018, he raged at the media, insulted financial analysts during a public call with investors, and attacked the National Transportation Safety Board—the Mr. Rogers of federal agencies.

Then, in the final week of June, at the very end of the second quarter, Tesla finally hit its goal of building more than 5,000 Model 3s in a single week (5,031, to be exact), the point at which Musk believes revenue from sales will outweigh the cost of production, and lead to profitability. The automaker has started to offer more versions of the car, indicating it was confident it could keep up the pace. Investors’ confidence in Musk seemed, at long last, justified.

It should have eased the pressure. But Musk kept finding himself the center of unwanted attention. In July, he railed against those saying his efforts to assist in the rescue of a group of boys trapped in a cave in Thailand were more self-aggrandizing than serious. When a diver who helped with the effort insulted him, Musk called him “pedo guy.” (He later apologized.) The same week, he struggled to explain why he donated about $40,000 to a Republican political action committee, given that many Republicans are climate change deniers. None of this inspired confidence in Musk, but Model 3s kept coming off the production line. Investors will forgive a lot if they make their money.

Last week, though, Musk’s erratic behavior and his taste for Twitter struck a blow not just to his reputation, but to his company. On Tuesday, he tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private, and he had the necessary funding “secured.” The automaker’s stock price shot up, as did eyebrows at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Especially when Musk revealed a few days later that by “secured,” he meant not exactly secured. The SEC is investigating, and serious fines are a possibility. Angered investors have filed four lawsuits—so far. “As a result of Defendants’ materially false and misleading statements, as well as their market manipulation, Tesla securities purchasers were injured to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” one reads.

The pressure to perform has eased, but its effects, it seems, endure. Musk cares deeply about what people think of him and his companies. His harsh reactions to negative press often beget more of the same, a surely unsettling shift from the years of mostly adoring coverage he received, of the publicly validated self-worth he must have come to expect. And while he retains a loyal army of Twitter followers, his mantle as a Renaissance Superman, gifted by an enthralled public—and media—is slipping.

In his interview with the Times, Musk said that in terms of Tesla’s operations, the worst is over. “But from a personal pain standpoint,” he said, “the worst is yet to come.” This bodes ill not just for his investors, but for everyone who thinks cars should be fun to drive and good for the planet, who wants to explore space, who believes in a better future.

Musk, then, is Hercules remixed. The greatest of Greek heroes performed his famed labors as penance for killing his children in a fit of insanity. Musk has completed his own labors, landing rockets on boats and delivering a wonderful, affordable, electric car. But the effort seems to have left him mad. And now he threatens to destroy what he has created.

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